Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review - "The French Revolution: A History" by Thomas Carlyle

At last I've come to the end of this lengthy book! I won't deny that there were times when I wanted to abandon it, because the style of writing is quirky and polemic and the tone unabashedly self-righteous. I just wish there were other more readable historical works out there about this cataclysmic phase of French history.

Having said that, I’m glad that I persevered to the end. With all its shortcomings, it is still a marvelously researched, all-round account of historical events and characters, beginning with the last days of Louis XV's reign and ending with the emergence of young Napoleon Bonaparte as a shrewd artillery officer. As much as the book offers copious factual details, off-putting was the author's obvious bias towards monarchy and his almost belligerent prejudice against "the seagreen" reformer, Maximilien Robespierre, and his Republican principles, which were based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract. The French people didn’t get murderously incensed with the monarchy, the nobility and the clergy for no reason. Social grievances had been allowed to fester for far too long and the privileged class had been too callous towards the oppressed. All that was needed was a spark to set off the conflagration.

It would seem to me that in the latter stage Robespierre and his Jacobins were literally backed into a corner, pressured both on the inside (with an empty state coffer and a hungry populace hankering for bread) and the outside (with France being attacked on all sides by its predatory neighbors). Sadly the extremely complex and dire circumstances drove him to paranoia and jittery suspicion which made him succumb to his allies' ill advice of resorting to the guillotine to eliminate opponents.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the French Revolution, though dearly paid for with 4,000 civilian lives, did have a crucial part in blazing a trail in the quest for more accountable and fairer governance in the following decades, leading ultimately to a democratic Third Republic in 1870.

I previously read Alexis de Tocqueville's "The Old Regime and the French Revolution", which was helpful towards understanding the underlying causes that led to the pivotal events and era.

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